Stan Van Gundy on the decline of Dwight Howard: “It’s crazy; it really is”

Associated Press
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Dwight Howard, NBA vagabond center, will suit up for the Washington Wizards this season. That’s five teams in six seasons for Howard since leaving Orlando, and it’s such a thing that even HBO’s John Oliver is taking digs at him.

It’s been a dramatic fall, because Orlando Howard — before the back surgery — was the best center in the game and an annual MVP candidate, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and eight times made an All-NBA team. He was the prototype big man, but as he slowed and the game evolved Howard didn’t want to change.

His old coach in Orlando, Stan Van Gundy, talked about it with Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel.

“It’s crazy; it really is,” Van Gundy said during his weekly appearance on my Open Mike radio show on FM 96.9 and AM 740. “… And it’s not been a lot of fun to watch because this is a guy who was the best center in the game for a long time. He’s still very good, but it doesn’t seem that he’s been highly appreciated….

“The problem is — and not just for Dwight — it’s been a tough adjustment for them [big men.] What everybody wants right now in a center is a guy who runs, defends, defends pick-and-rolls, protects the rim, rebounds and, on offense, is a pick-and-roll guy and a lob threat. Well, that’s Dwight Howard. There’s probably nobody who’s ever been better than him [at those skills.]

“The problem is these guys all want more. They want it go back to the days where you would throw them the ball in the low post and then they get to play their game. I understand that. You’re a great player and you want to be able to show what you can do, but the game has changed. It’s been a tough adjustment for centers. I don’t think the game has passed them by because those guys are still really effective. They just have had trouble adjusting to and enjoying the role people want them to play.”

Van Gundy gets to the heart of the matter — the NBA changed, Howard had the skill set to evolve with it (not the outside shot, but as a defensive force and a great pick-and-roll big), but Howard still wanted to play like Shaq and Kareem. With zone defenses the game has changed: If a team has a dominant post player, that player can be fronted and backed before he even touches the ball, making it hard to get him the rock where he can do damage. Post-ups still work in spots, but what’s key is faster recognition of the double and the ability to kick-it-out for an open three.

For most of his career, Howard has been a better, more efficient pick-and-roll player than he is on post-ups. But he couldn’t get his head wrapped around the evolution of the game and what was needed of him. So he has stumbled, and off the court his efforts at leadership have fallen flat.

He was better last season in Charlotte, and maybe Washington is another step in that direction, but we all need to see it before we believe it.